Fans of HBO’s classic TV series The Wire will remember Season 3, Episode 3, in which Omar and his crew’s attempt to rob one of the Barksdale stash houses leads to a shootout. The results of that shootout then lead to the infamous Stringer Bell 40-degree day monologue.
The Los Angeles Lakers have given their fans many 40 degree days this season.
Entering the final week of the regular season 16 games under .500 with a 31-47 record, it seems hard to believe this Lakers season could’ve gone any worse. The team is not only in danger of missing the Playoffs but they may also miss the Play-In Tournament. They’re currently 2 games behind the San Antonio for the final play-in spot with 4 games remaining in the regular season. The Lakers schedule is also much more difficult, as three of their four remaining opponents are playoff teams. They have a 4-16 record since the All-Star Break, and are not just losing games, but losing ugly. Of those 16 losses since the break, eight have come by double digits, four of which by 20 points or more. LeBron James has played at an All-NBA level this season, competing for the league’s scoring title at age 37. Unfortunately for him and the Lakers, he has also missed 22 games due to injury this season. Star teammates Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook have been disappointing to say the least. Davis has missed 40 games this season due knee and foot injuries, and honestly hasn’t looked like himself in the 38 games that he has appeared in. Westbrook has been a disaster, with poor shooting and decision making only being the tip of the. The rest of the roster has been mediocre at best, maybe with the lone bright spot being guard Malik Monk. Even if they are miraculously able to make it into the Play-In Tournament and win the 8 seed, it’s unlikely that they would put up much of a fight against the Phoenix Suns, who have already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference.
So who is most at fault for this season’s disappointing results? It may be easy for some to point the finger at LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a duo, given their reported “push” for the Westbrook trade. Then there is Westbrook himself, who has not only been bad on the court but has also had a few tense moments with the media and fans in the midst of the downspiraling season. There are also some people that believe Head Coach Frank Vogel should be held responsible for how the season has played out based on the team’s lack of intensity and urgency even while fighting for a playoff spot.
None of those would be my answer. Yes, James and Davis pushed for the Westbrook deal but they didn’t negotiate or execute it. Frank Vogel has made many questionable decisions with lineups and rotations, however the Lakers roster isn’t very deep to begin with. When you factor in the injuries to LeBron and Anthony Davis, it’s nearly impossible to put together a winning lineup with the players Vogel has at his disposal.
In my opinion, the person most responsible for the Lakers turmoil this season is General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka.
Two seasons ago, the Lakers won the NBA Finals with a team built on a defensive identity around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the roster wasn’t perfect, the team ultimately found its footing at the perfect time. Pelinka, by this time, seemed like the man for the job. His work in the offseason prior to the 2020-2021 season furthered fans’ belief in Pelinka and the Lakers front office. The team added veteran players Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroeder and Wesley Matthews in free agency and thought that they may be putting themselves in position to win a second straight title. With the start of the 2020-21 coming just over 2 months after the Playoff Bubble ended, the team struggled out of the gate. The new pieces did not look as though they were the best fits after all and the team’s identity wasn’t quite the same as the previous year. A late season injury to LeBron and a playoff injury to Anthony Davis ultimately derailed the chance for a repeat and the Lakers lost in 6 games to the Suns.
Fast forward to the most recent offseason. Many fans and members of the media felt that change was needed in order for the Lakers to get back into the championship conversation. With players such as Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan hitting free agency, along with trade buzz around stars like Damian Lillard, rumors began to circulate about how players of that caliber could wind up in Los Angeles. The Lakers were also in heavy talks to land guard Buddy Hield via trade from the Sacramento Kings.
What did Pelinka ultimately do? He passed on signing Derozan, reportedly due to not wanting to offer a third year on the contract being negotiated at the time. After passing on the opportunity to trade for Lowry at the February trade deadline, the team also missed out on him during free agency after he signed a three year deal with the Miami Heat. Lillard was never really an option given the assets needed in order to pull off the trade. The Lakers’ only option now was the trade for Buddy Hield, or so we thought.
At the last second, reports began breaking that the Lakers were interested in Wizards guard Russell Westbrook. The trade for Westbrook was finalized on draft night, sending guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, forwards Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell and draft compensation to the Wizards for the former MVP. The move left the Lakers with minimal assets and salary cap space to make any further moves. The trade for Buddy Hield was no longer on the table. Westbrook’s $44 million cap hit, combined with max deals for James and Davis, took away any opportunity to sign other free agents.
Surely, Rob Pelinka and team can still find a way to make this a championship roster, right? Wrong! The rest of the roster was filled out mostly with aging veterans on minimum deals. Young guard Talen Horton-Tucker was notably brought back on a 3 year, $30 million deal while guard Alex Caruso was allowed to walk, ultimately signing with the Chicago Bulls. Guards Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn were signed to inject some youth into the team, and while Monk has fit in well with the team, Nunn hasn’t played in a single game this season.
Now, just two years removed from a championship, the Lakers are left at rock bottom. A place that Rob Pelinka should be held accountable for keeping them out of. Rather than taking a true team building approach, Pelinka went all in for a player that is on his fourth team in four seasons in Westbrook and a bunch of role players that would have been great to have in 2012, not so much in 2022. While the Anthony Davis trade resulted in a championship, there’s also room to question why the Lakers had to give up so much to acquire him when it was well known across the league that Davis only wanted to go to Los Angeles. I understand the need to cater to a superstar like LeBron James, especially with how well he continues to play, but at some point you have to have a bigger vision than just the years in which LeBron is under contract. Moving forward, somebody will need to clean up the mess that this season, and decisions made before this season will have left. It should just be somebody other than Rob Pelinka.
Written by Josh Price
Photo courtesy of Getty Images via sportscasting.com
Published April 5, 2022